20th Century Fox
Full disclosure, but I’m not into video games. Never really was, and, while I understand the appeal, can’t motivate to find a way to them that would allow me entry into an added layer of pop culture. For me, they fall under the same umbrella as Live Action Role Play, which is just one of those forms of escapism that has less than zero appeal.
Perhaps because of that, I also have no interest in video game adaptations, and, though I have sat through my fair share of them on the big screen, I have not, to my knowledge, ever actually enjoyed any. Not one, in fact.
I’m clearly not alone in this, as the landscape is littered with the corpses of adaptations that no one saw, or only a few actually liked. This doesn’t stop the studios from making them, however, which might fall back on the famed — and apocryphal, as it is often attributed to Einstein, who never actually said it — definition of insanity, that being the repetition of behavior and expecting a different result. A new studio, a new video game, a new take, new graphics and effects and bells and whistles, pretty much the same end game.
Oh, sure, there are exceptions, of course, like the Resident Evil franchise that has made so much money for Sony, and its publisher, Capcom, but those are few and far between, and in spite of the execrable success rate of these films, they keep getting made, keep being developed, ultimately unleashed on a mostly indifferent audience who love playing the games themselves but have little interest in sitting through a two-hour fictionalized version of them, and thus, keep losing money.
The Angelina Jolie-led Tomb Raider movies, for instance, both finished in the red, and yet, there is a new Tomb Raider coming our way in March, this time with Alicia Vikander as Ms. Croft. Just a month later, we’re getting a Dwayne Johnson-led Rampage adaptation. After years of speculation about it, there appears to be a Sonic the Hedgehog movie coming our way sometime next year, as well — a project that once had Deadpool director Tim Miller attached, but no longer — plus titles like The Last of Us, Myst, Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Gears of War, among plenty others. Heck, there’s even that Emoji Movie thing hitting theaters at the end of next month, and while that might not technically fall under the same category, I’m not sure how else to characterize it.
Interestingly, a couple weeks ago in the Sony installment of the Studio Series, I projected that the movie will do some good business, after which more than a few folks suggested I take a drug test, but my thinking on it was based purely on the results scored by The Angry Birds Movie last year, which baffled me as much as anyone, but is unquestionably on the very short list of successful such endeavors (another one, surprisingly, is 2014’s Need for Speed, which is not viewed as a success, but did, in fact, eke out a small profit). To me, they’re pretty much the same thing, though that might be ignorance on my part, a charge I willingly accept without protest, especially under the circumstances.
The thing is, though, it feels like we keep having this conversation, but nothing changes. Ubisoft released its Assassin’s Creed movie last Christmas, but months before the movie came out, the company essentially said that the film was not expected to make money, but rather to serve as a very expensive advertisement for the latest version of the game. See, I understand that kind of thinking, in an odd way, because it’s based on a sort of pragmatism. “We’re not going to change the culture here, but at least we can get some more attention to the central product, so, what the hell, let’s throw a couple hundred million into making and marketing the thing and see if we can’t sell a few million more copies.”
That makes a lot more sense than the alternative, which is to think, “This time, we’re gonna get it right! And people are going to flock — FLOCK! — to the theater to see it!” It’s for this reason that Jordan Vogt-Roberts, fresh off his Kong: Skull Island triumph, signed up to turn another game, something called Metal Gear Solid, into a Major Motion Picture, which may or may not ever come to fruition, because who knows? Same with another Ubisoft property, Splinter Cell, which is supposed to star and be produced by Tom Hardy, but in the wake of the tidal wave of red ink that washed over Assassin’s Creed, there hasn’t been a ton of recent movement on that one, either.
Warner Bros. Pictures
So, are the studios finally learning their lesson about all this? Are they, at last, seeing that the profitability of these movies is limited? Some could point to Angry Birds, a genuine money maker, or Warcraft — which is said to have made a profit for all the tickets it sold in China, but that is genuinely suspect and so I am among those who put an asterisk beside the final total of $433 million worldwide — and the potential of this Emoji thing, or the rebooted Lara Croft, or Johnson’s Rampage, but, again, rare exceptions breaking through aren’t a solid foundation on which to build a business plan.
Of course, this being the film industry, no one actually thinks that way. “Come on, don’t be naive,” said an executive at one of the studios developing one of these video game movies. “You want to make one of these things that breaks through so that you can say you’re the one who finally figured out the formula. Why would you ever think differently? This isn’t rocket science. It’s Hollywood.”
And yet, Warner Bros. is moving awfully slowly on its much ballyhooed Minecraft project, which has a May 2019 release date, but we all know how reliable those things can be, especially since the development on that appears to have slowed down from a brisk jog to a tentative crawl. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Emoji’s opening weekend numbers end up having some kind of effect on that project.
At some point, despite the protestations of the aforementioned exec, there has to be some kind of mass Come to Jesus moment, doesn’t there? A communal understanding that these things don’t tend to work? That it is something of a fool’s errand to ask someone who is used to playing a game themselves — becoming a part of the story and thus being able to at least partially control it — to sit back and watch an alternate version in which there is no control, and the version of which is somewhat bastardized? I mean, there does, right?
But, then again, we wouldn’t have that definition of insanity if people didn’t behave that way. Repeatedly doing the same thing over and over, always expecting a different result. Because this time, dammit, this time it’s going to work.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.